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Bird of Prey Center Hunting for Funds for a New Facility

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tommy the golden eagle was lost and undernourished, but generous benefactors nursed him back to health and returned the fledgling to his nest.

The Orange County Birds of Prey Center, which cared for Tommy, is hoping for the same happy ending.

The nonprofit group has been searching for the past 18 months for funds to build a mini-medical and educational center after being told by Lake Forest city officials that it must eventually leave its current location, the backyard of a residence.

Although the center has found a site for its new facility in a South County wilderness park, the fund-raising to erect the new center “has been running slow; it’s unfortunate,” said Scott Weldy, a veterinarian who runs the center. “I was a lot more optimistic before . . . but we will make this happen.”

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The center is in no immediate danger of eviction. In the past, city officials have told Weldy that they will be patient as long as he is making progress on establishing the new facility.

Although the money has been trickling in, Weldy has made progress.

He has won cooperation from the county, which is negotiating for the center to rent a site in the Limestone / Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park for $1 per year.

“Our role is to protect environmental resources,” said Tim Miller, who manages the county’s 30,000-acre wilderness park system. “One of the best ways to protect the environment is through education, and this [raptor center] will have an ongoing, active interpretive center.”

Weldy has also found a major anonymous donor who has agreed to give about $350,000--although another $350,000 is need to start construction.

“This kind of education is not available in Orange County,” Weldy said. “There’s a need to do the rehabilitation of the birds, and all the work is divided between a few people; and all of them are overwhelmed.”

Currently, the center uses a 25- by-40-foot utility shed to rehabilitate sick and injured birds.

For a naturally aggressive, territorial species such as raptors, the close quarters can present problems for caretakers.

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“In the spring, we get inundated with fledglings,” said Cindy Mehegan, volunteer coordinator. “The more there are, the more aggressive they get, and the more dangerous it is for us to go in and clean.”

In large numbers, some species, such as barn owls, will “flap their wings and hiss at you,” said Mehegan, who has worked at the center for two years. “We are also sometimes forced to mix numerous species together, which is not a good thing.”

The group has treated more than 1,000 injured and sick raptors, including Tommy, since opening in 1990.

In July, Tommy wandered from his nest and was found in a fenced Anaheim Hills construction site. About 4 months old, the bird was too weak from lack of food to fly back over the fence.

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The center cared for Tommy until his weight climbed back to normal and released him in an area where wildlife experts thought his nest was located.

A transmitter was clipped to the eagle, and a close watch has been kept to make sure he is accepted back into the nest by his parents.

Tommy has been seen in past weeks in the nesting area.

Weldy says the fledgling, who has a wing span of almost six feet, has probably been accepted, however, the eagle is still getting into scrapes.

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“He flew into this rocky canyon, and another eagle flew at him and bumped him in the chest,” said Weldy. “The competition for food is tough. He’s learning from the school of hard knocks.”

Tommy is doubly valuable because golden eagles are scarce--only about 1,000 live in the state--and it’s difficult to attach a transmitter to the large, aggressive birds.

“There’s a slight risk involved when they’re in the nest, but they’re difficult to catch once they learn to fly,” Weldy said. “Tommy’s a valuable guy.”


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